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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Kunst der Fuge (Die) (The Art of Fugue), BWV 1080a
Bach’s last work, The Art of Fugue, was published shortly after his death. This recording uses the surviving autograph material from the last decade of Bach’s life, breaking off at the point where, according to his second son C.P.E. Bach, Johann Sebastian uses the letters of his own name, B-A-C-H, to introduce a new countersubject. It takes a true master of the keyboard to negotiate the labyrinthine corridors of this monumental work.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080a
"A rugged, daunting idiom whose very splendours transcend merely human expression" -- André Pirro, Esthétique de J.-S. Bach, p. 508
When asking me to introduce his recorded performance of Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) Sébastien Guillot expressed the wish that I should be prompted by the words quoted above and signed by a great expounder of Bach's output. To him that single sentence seemed aptly and properly to fit the whole of a vast output and, still more justly and specifically, The Art of Fugue itself. It would indeed prove the ever needful spur and stimulus to thinking and writing. The Art of Fugue is in itself an inspiration, a supreme one. What can one say, however, when confronted with such a legacy, such a cathedral of sound? What can one add to the sum of printed articles available today, in which, intent on making up for the Cantor's seeming carelessness with regard to his final work, and, by dint of passionate research, analysis, of eagerly breaking up, dismantling, taking to pieces, of intense investigation, deciphering, numbering, of ardent expositions and, at times, even disputes and controversies, all and sundry come elatedly to put forward the date, design, content, scoring, tempi of that sublime work whose mystery, secret, even, and very sublimity stand revealed thanks, allegedly, to their consciously sure intelligent penetration. Some monumental human achievements, however, whether creations in stone or of the mind, will keep their secrets inviolate, as enigmas bequeathed for ever to the thinking world. So is it with The Art of Fugue.
What should continue to worry, annoy and stir so much the devotees of Bach and his Kunst der Fuge? That the latter's title should not have been chosen by the Cantor himself? Or can it be the intriguing circumstances of its composition, its undefined structure, its variants, in the number of bars, the resort to modifying sharps and flats and other contrapuntal, melodic, rhythmical, metrical variants, its hesitant corrections, its incompleteness? Would the work prove finer, should Bach have made its organization for ever immutable as well as for ever fixed the nature and choice of its instrumentation, had he completed the final fugue whose relevance to the whole cycle, though worth considering, is still open to question? What does all that matter, after all? Why dwell on mere, incongruous technicalities in connection with a world that soars high above the material one and far transcends everyday human experience? Why assign numbers to the soul's utterances? Why frame the unseen? Such as it is, Die Kunst der Fuge is downright spellbinding. Its repetitive though never narcotic side indeed bewitches, as well as its irrepressible sprouting vigour, its flowering energy, its putting forth, growth or, more aptly, irradiation of what is essentially single and unique, a thematic singleness that could well be meant to reflect, extol and transfigure the One in Three of the Christian Trinity. Hence, the double or triple fugues or those mirror fugues, mirrors in the quasi-evangelical sense: that the Father's image is reflected in that of the Son, and vice versa. The Art of Fugue casts a spell through its tireless weaving of an ever-renewed and often reversible contrapuntal web; it captivates through its inexhaustible inventive genius as evinced in its canons, its art of continuous variation, its symbolic aspects which can meet the requirements of all and sundry; it fascinates by an inner progress that reaches and achieves, through degrees of growing complexity, irrespective of the differences between manuscript and printed versions, a transcendent magnitude. One cannot fail here to evoke the figure of St Augustine who saw in the perfection of all visible things the mark, genuine though somewhat dim, of God's invisible perfections. So could it still be the case with Die Kunst der Fuge which is, above all, a paean in praise of formal excellence, an immense Fantasia contrappuntistica, an ode to the dying art of counterpoint, on its way to extinction, though more flamboyant than ever as practised by Bach himself. It is a liturgy "in action", a liturgy ceaselessly resumed with ever the same ever changing fugue, at heavenly music's altar, Soli Deo Gloria, up to the ultimate one a tre soggetti that dies away into silence, as if smothered by the emotional intensity it fails to convey: the only, sole conclusion imaginable, even if further attempts at completion, sometimes testifying to no less genius than Busoni's own, have dared fill the void left by the absence of what Bach himself allowed to remain unheard, unborn, inconceivable. "A work can achieve beauty through the surrender of some of its aspects that still may not entirely disappear in the process, through the halo that might have enfolded what could have been said and eventually was not. Such a sacrifice is part of the charm of unfinished or damaged works…" Thus, in its sublime incompleteness, Die Kunst der Fuge constitutes an achievement, a true fulfilment, a music to be performed at Compline. "A rugged, daunting idiom whose very splendours transcend merely human expression". How true, as applied to what is indeed a portico, a portal giving access to the ultimate Beyond.
Translated by Paul Bruyère
Bach's The Art of Fugue presents certain problems. The work, which Bach had been preparing for publication, was issued only posthumously in 1751. The present recording uses autograph material that survives. The manuscript of the first nine fugues of the posthumously printed version is dated to about 1742, from the end of the ninth up to the fifteenth with the eighteenth dated between then and 1746, the fourteenth to about 1747 to August 1748 and the nineteenth after that date. The 1751 published version offered the contrapuncti in a different order and included a final chorale prelude. The two versions may be compared in the following lists:
The subject on which the whole series of fugues and canons is based is by Bach. The Canon in Hypodiapason [Track 9] is a canon at the octave, in which the second part enters in canon an octave lower than the subject. The Canon in Hypodiatessaron, al roverscio e per augmentationem  is a canon at the fourth, with the second voice entering a fourth below the subject, but inverted and augmented, that is in doubled note values. Fugue 13  &  presents the subject inverted in a second version and the Canon al roverscio et per augmentationem  again inverts and augments the second voice. The unfinished final Fugue 19  appears to omit the fugal theme on which the rest of the work is based, presenting three subjects, including the final entry of one based on the name of Bach, B flat - A - C - B natural (BACH in German letter notation). It has been suggested that the three subjects are in fact countersubjects that go with the original theme, a fourth subject, in fact. Whatever the truth of this, the printed edition of the work, now under the title Der Kunst der Fuge, included a final note from Bach's second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel: Über dieser Fuge, wo der Nahme B.A.C.H. im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben (In this fugue, where the name B.A.C.H. is introduced as a countersubject, the composer died).
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BACH, J.S.: Kunst der Fuge (Die) (The Art of Fugue...